It would certainly be an understatement to merely say that the new tentative National Agreement is complex. It is that, but the complexities of the Agreement also reflect the facts that it contains several bold initiatives and that it addresses changes to so many different parts of the contract that full comprehension of its benefits and its disadvantages is very difficult. I’ve read one commentator’s remark that the new contract is “transcendent”. I believe that is apt. And this contract certainly seems to me to be generating far more in-depth, critical thinking and debate than any in memory. There have been those who have voiced opinion, apparently, without much critical analysis – satisfied, instead, to respond to its whole because of just one of its parts. That, I think, cannot serve much useful purpose. This contract demands more consideration by our members – and more guidance by those who stand in leadership roles – than any prior National Agreement. It proposes to make some very important and fundamental changes that ought to be studied and taken as a whole. (And I’ll note that I’ve always believed one of the essential responsibilities of a leader in this Union is to assist the members when issues are presented by giving wise counsel as to what their course of action ought to be. To offer opinion about this contract and to demur from advising a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ vote shirks that responsibility.)
There are certainly a good many things to like about this contract and a good many things to dislike. I cannot address all the intricacies of the effects of Craft-specific terms of the Agreement, but I can address the changes to Article 38. What draws compliment here is the absence of provisions – the absence of the new non-traditional full-time (NTFT) duty assignment for the Maintenance Craft. And it is impressive that we were able to regain custodial work in small offices through invention of the Postal Support Employee (PSE) category (more on this later). But the plain Article 38 provisions I find perplexing, at best, and (closer to reality) infuriating. First, there is the elimination of the reference point for all our occupational groups, by way of key and standard position descriptions, with the writing out of the Agreement the reference to Handbook EL-201. While we have known for years that the Postal Service does not maintain the EL-201 as it does most of its handbooks, it is a whole other matter to explicitly write it out of our National Agreement. And we have done so without counterbalancing language to protect the continuing integrity of the position descriptions and occupational groups. With as many potential, negative implications as this change has, there simply was no good reason for it.
Then we have the changes to Section 4.A.2. and 4.A.3. These changes – especially the introduction of absolute permission to revert a position because of a staffing package – will undermine more than thirty years of history. We have had remarkably consistent success over the years restoring reverted positions, based on the prior language and the parties’ explicit agreement that the reversion process had a defined 40-day window of opportunity. These changes will irreversibly alter this contract protection.
Section 5.B.5. previously put forth a progression of bid and promotion actions with specific “break points” at which the process would restart. The “break points” have been taken out. Now, one ET, PS-10, vacancy posting will trigger a continuous bid/promote cycle that will only end with the last residual – perhaps Custodian, PS-03. While the Maintenance Craft has prided itself for more than thirty years on our unique bid/promote process, we have never denied it places a unique burden on our members. This change will increase the burden on members of every occupational group in the office to monitor job postings and to speculate on the potential, downstream ramifications of every one – or, possibly, get unexpectedly placed in a new job. There could and should have been some countervailing terms that would have required a daily progress report by management on how the bid/promotion process would play out during the time a posting is open. As with other detractions from rights in Article 38, there is no counterbalance for placing more onus on the workers.
The additional language in Section 7.E. pertaining to circumvention of 204b detail limitations may be the only plus among changes. Though its expression is rather obtuse, it will probably serve its intended purpose.
Finally, going back to Section 5. Here we see at 5.B.2. the deplorable retreat of the Craft from what has been one of our primary objectives for the past forty years – the achievement of senior-qualified promotion for every position in the Craft. All senior-qualified promotion eligibility registers (PERs) have been eliminated!! Wiped from the contract in their entirety – not modified, not improved upon, but thrown on the trash heap of history. Year after year, one Craft Convention after another, the Maintenance Craft has reaffirmed our commitment to – one day – persuade the Postal Service it need only determine whether or not an employee is qualified for promotion and then to promote by seniority; to end the vagaries of managerial manipulations to decide who among employees seeking promotion is “best qualified” for any given position. With recent changes to the Maintenance Selection System that have made the interview panel process nothing more than a pass-fail element of the evaluation, coupled with this regressive elimination of senior-qualified PERs, we now have completed the reversal of the decades old, fundamental principle of promotions that written examinations not be controlling. Now the written examination score is the control. To tout “seniority within the banded score” as if that were an accomplishment is to ignore the fact that we achieved that step-in-the-right-direction in the 1990-1994 National Agreement. Each of the subsequent changes in this part of Article 38 has been made as incremental progress toward the objective of ultimately making seniority the only determinative factor in selection for promotion of qualified employees. Each subsequent change, that is, until this . . . I cannot, in good conscience, advocate for rejection of a whole National Agreement because of changes to one Craft Article; however, this change to Article 38 is nothing short of an outrage.
General Article Changes –
As we approached contract negotiations, there seemed to be no one who thought that negotiations would be anything but difficult. In fact, the consensus seemed to be that we were in for, perhaps, the most difficult contract negotiations ever – that the Postal Service economic condition, the overall national economic circumstances and the political climate presented grave problems for our prospects. Some of us were of the opinion that a negotiated agreement was a virtual impossibility. And yet we have a contract.
There should be no surprise that a contract was achieved only because it contains significant changes. The Postal Service sought monetary savings and flexibility; the Union sought countervailing gains. One may second guess whether the gains of this Agreement are sufficient, in balance, to offset our losses; but one ought not second guess either the difficulties of the process or the will of Union negotiators – the results dictate otherwise.
It seemed surprising to me that the contract contains any provisions whatsoever for contractual wage increases, yet it does. It seemed expected that we would lose significantly (in dollars and cents) on the Employer share of health benefit premium payments; yet we did not. The benefit to our bargaining unit members of holding APWU health insurance, instead of any other plan, was expanded upon and ought not be ignored. This benefit of Union membership is exactly the type of contractual benefit we ought to negotiate – it helps the individual member and it helps the Union. Although COLA increases have been deferred, they have not been lost; and the deferral comes during a time when COLA increases are not to be expected to be of much significance anyway.
Clearly, the greatest negative economic impact of this Agreement is the fact that the Union has agreed future employees will be compensated less earnings than present employees. It has been amply pointed out that the new, reduced pay scales will cause future workers to have diminished lifetime earnings as a consequence. What is forgotten in that complaint is the fact that each time our contract previously saw reduced starting steps in the pay scale, the affected new employees’ lifetime earnings had been diminished; when pay anomalies resulting from changes to our pay scales were remedied, affected employees were never made whole for what they had lost as compared with what they might have earned had changes never been made.
The new pay scales are a distasteful consequence of worldwide economic problems. The United States economy – at least as it affects working Americans – began its decline with Ronald Reagan and his voodoo economics. It was abated a bit during the boom times of the Bill Clinton administration, but nosedived over the course of ‘W’ years, culminating in the crash of 2008. While it is easy enough to see the not-so-invisible hand of the market place squeezing the lifeblood of the working class in more and more ways, it is not so easy to identify any means to quickly overcome the breadth and scope of the damage that has been done. There was no way possible that the APWU contract with the Postal Service could happen in a vacuum or stand alone as redemption for workers and protection of labor values. Every time the Union has arbitrated a National Agreement, the arbitrator has told us that we exceeded ‘wage comparability’ a long time ago (thanks to our earliest contracts). In today’s economy, reduced wages should have been a foregone conclusion.
The elimination of casuals has been dealt with by some critics as if it were a name-only change – on the contention that the new Postal Support Employee (PSE) is nothing more than a repackaged casual. That is simply untrue. When we negotiate terms that explicitly eliminate from the Postal workforce non-bargaining unit workers that have been part of our employment relationship for its entire prior history, that is a major accomplishment. The PSE is a bargaining unit position – it has rights and benefits and is susceptible to Union membership. The fact that many of the ways in which the PSE may be utilized by the Service are the same as ways it previously used casuals cannot change the fact that the two categories are worlds apart. Casuals had no rights; casuals had no benefits; casuals had no protections under the contract. This National Agreement accomplishes for these future PSE workers wages and benefits and conditions of employment they otherwise would never have had, and gives them a path to career employment in the regular work force as well. I find the percentage allowances for employment of this job category disappointingly high, coupled with provisions that some employment in this category does not “count against” those percentages, making it very hard but not impossible to accept what has been negotiated.
Restructuring of what it means to enjoy the benefits of full-time employment is probably the most difficult change to the Agreement to accept – the non-traditional full-time (NTFT) duty assignment. This strange bird, not a new category per se but damned close, will create so many problems for current and future full-time employees it seems impossible to comprehend the full implications. Certainly, it will place a heavy burden on Local leaders during local implementation to find ways to control managerial discretion through the LMOU. The high percentage allowances for establishment of NTFT positions will, no doubt, present a wide array of problems for day-to-day bidding and assignment issues. And, as I said earlier, it is one of the few highlights for the Maintenance Craft that this new full-time status will not occur in Maintenance. This conceptual change to our understanding of full-time employment does run, in certain ways, contrary to long pursued and cherished labor principles. Was it truly necessary for our negotiators to accept the NTFT as part of a negotiated agreement? The only answer to that has to be, “It must have been.” Should it have been treated as a “deal breaker”? Some unionists would have balked and refused to agree to this new concept as part of a contract. I have noted (without hearing from anyone as to the intended significance of this) that all provisions for the NTFT are contained in MOUs – not in the body of the National Agreement. Perhaps, without saying so, we have negotiated here a temporary or trial concept, as perpetuation of MOUs is always less certain than perpetuation of terms of the articles. In the end, I have had to conclude that the significant alterations made to what constitutes a full-time position are not so violent or repugnant as to negate acceptance of the whole Agreement.
Where’s the Work?
What ultimately, I believe, dictates that this contract deserves the members’ ratification are the new initiatives that address old problems and that protect our work. After all, where will we be if there is simply no longer any work to be done by the bargaining unit?
Among items that resolve old problems, the changes to Article 12 are certainly of considerable importance. Although there is not an absolute bar to reassignments beyond a 50-mile limit, the new provisions make long-distance changes to employees’ careers far less likely than has been the case. Many, many present workers will be able to stay in their communities – keep their kids in school, not disturb their spouses’ employment, keep their homes – than would have otherwise occurred under present Article 12 terms and present day conditions. Additionally, the parties have managed to clean up some of the nagging problems with Article 12 that have surfaced again and again over recent years. These are, by and large, great changes.
In this same general category of changes to address old problems – how often have we complained in the field that, if only ‘the boys in Washington’ would take care of this issue, perhaps we wouldn’t have to take it on locally again and again? I believe the new Section 2 of Article 19 is a very progressive step in the right direction. It sets up a separate arbitration panel at the headquarters level for Article 19 disputes and actually provides for arbitrators to render an award within 30 days of the close of the arbitration record! Previously when the Postal Service changed a handbook or manual and the Union challenged the change, we have nonetheless had to live for years with implementation of the change – affecting day-to-day operations and lives – until the Article 19 dispute could be addressed. (For example, we challenged ASM changes in 1992, but didn’t see an arbitration award on the dispute for a full ten years!) This new Article 19 section promises to make a significant advance against the Postal Service’s ability to make unilateral changes with impunity.
For the first time ever, with this new Agreement, our Support Services Craft brothers and sisters will have a place in the same National Agreement as the other Crafts. This too holds promise of future improvements in the representation of our members.
But the work initiatives are, I believe, of the highest significance in this new Agreement. From the new provisions for Lead Clerk positions to the return of subcontracted cleaning services work to the bargaining unit, this contract – for the first time – takes progressive steps toward recapture and protection of bargaining unit work. While Article 1 has, for decades, referred to “managerial and supervisory personnel” (under the exclusion clauses), this new Agreement contains explicit terms recognizing an expanded concept of what constitutes bargaining unit work. It promises, through several initiatives, to recoup – from EAS – our work. The parties have utilized the term “non-managerial or non-supervisory work” to do this in the MOU, Clerical Work, and in the MOU, New Positions and New Work. The parties have also made explicit agreements about these issues as they had been addressed in the award of Arbitrator Carlton Snow several years ago, and which led to the protracted Step 4 and federal court disputes over the jobs and the work. The overall effect seems to me to be that the Postal Service has, in effect, conceded that there is work presently performed by EAS employees that more properly belongs to the bargaining work; and it has agreed to methodologies for the parties to identify this work and for the Union to recoup it.
We also see in the MOU, Maintenance Craft Jobs, and the changes to the MOU, Subcontracting Cleaning Services, abandonment – to a significant degree – by the Postal Service of the subcontracting of custodial work. This, coupled with changes to Article 32 and separate provisions affecting Motor Vehicle Service Craft subcontracting, mark important concessions by the Postal Service in an area where we have fought and fought over the persistent erosion of our work base.
The protection of the work base is, perhaps, the most pressing issue we have. It has been the erosion of that work base that has led to many of the structural problems of the Postal Service, has led to an almost viciously contentious labor-management climate over many years and has led to considerable consumption of time, energy and money by both parties in disputes over jobs and work. If this National Agreement genuinely marks a change in the direction of the Postal Service on this fundamental issue, that alone would make it worthy of ratification. I realize that “if” is a huge question. The Postal Service, over all these many years of our contractual relationship with it, has always shown itself to be fully capable of duplicity and manipulation. And there is no reason now to suppose that Postal management has experienced some sort of beneficent epiphany – it has not likely “seen the light and the error of its ways”. But there are enough sound agreements made by the Service in mutual commitment with the Union under the terms of this Agreement that, I believe, we must ratify this contract and proceed as always to
Win by Persuasion When Possible
Beat Them at the Table When Necessary
And Give ‘em Hell Generally
Donald L. Foley
Maintenance Craft NBA, retired